A/n: This story was written on a whim for my dearest friend Izzy, as a birthday gift two years too late. For those who still read Avatarly things, I hope you can see past the obvious 1a.m. quality and enjoy a little taste of nostalgia. I know I did.

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

Happy Reading!

The Puzzle

Her first thought is of her marriage, and that if she hasn't effectively ended it by her prior actions, it is certainly over now. There is nothing for it, not here. Her second thought is more akin to a flash of emotion, a wave of guilt that, like a burning candle wick, flickers to its end and is gone in a puff of smoke. Her third emotion—well, it is less convoluted than the first two, though more gradually reached.

She thinks at first that he is going to kill her. She doesn't blame him; wearing red of any sort prompts the same reaction in this town as would wielding a sign that reads "I am FIRE NATION, Please hurt me". Wearing red of any sort and prowling around in the dead of night with all of one's belongings and several weapons is like asking to be arrested or beaten, both of which seem like possibilities when he stops her during his patrol and demands to know where she's going.

"I'm—I apologize, Sir," she gasps, for his grip on her wrist only tightens when she drops her bag in surprise and an unsheathed knife comes tumbling into sight. Her eyes travel downwards, from the harsh lines drawn in his face to the blue tunic draped across his broad shoulders, down to his hand where it has curled, unmercifully tight, around her throbbing wrist. Her pale skin seems to shine lighter in the dark, especially against the contrast of his tanned fingers. "I only just arrived in the city."

"What is your business here?" he demands in low tones.

"I only seek refuge from home, and a place to sleep."

"Where is your home?"

She pauses, considering her options, and opts for the truth. "The Fire Nation, as you seem to know by the peculiar clothing beneath my cloak. I have been traveling there for quite some time, but have not been able to make a safe passage abroad until recently."

"And you're wondering around at night with a bag of knives because—?"

"No inn will have me. These weapons, this bag of clothing, it's all I have of my old life." Here, she finds that her breathing has wound down, her heart beats only slightly faster than it should. "I would sleep in the street if it pleases you, so long as you don't relieve me of my property."

At this, she feels the grip on her wrist ease and slips from his grip before he can reconsider. The man meets her eyes, seems to search for an answer to her puzzling situation, and when he finds none looks to his blue-clad companion. The latter nods. The former turns to her once more.

"Come with me."

She complies because she has no option, and for that reason finds herself in a small apartment for four, where the man and his three companions—all men, she realizes with a twinge of apprehension—have made a temporary home in the Earth Kingdom city. Though all of these men are suspicious of her motives, and with good reason, the youngest of them insists that she take his room and that he sleep on the floor in the small but cozy sitting room. She falls asleep slowly with the scent of a stranger on her pillow, and almost shrieks when the first thing she sees upon opening her eyes is an otter-bear's head mounted on the wall.

He meets her civilly the following morning with a cup of tea, an apology for his hostile reaction, and an explanation for his actions. The man, she learns during several long conversations, is from as remote a land as she, though while her land is baked dry by the sun, his is covered in snow and sculpted by the wind. She describes her other life in vague details, explaining that her family is "kind of wealthy and well-to-do in the city", and that she had to flee when her way of life was no longer an option. He has children, just as she, and with an aching heart she learns that he has also lost his spouse. Their means of separation are different in circumstance, his and hers, but the sense of distance and desperation are the same, the sense of grief is the same. Though they come from different worlds and cultures, both can understand what it means to lose.

His smile brightens their dark conversation, changes to a fond memory of his son and daughter during the South Pole hunting season. She listens with a smile itching in the corner of her own mouth, eager to learn.

After a few days and a change of wardrobe, she finds a small inn that she can afford. When she brings to the man this news, though, he seems reluctant to let her leave. He deliberately tries to sound suspicious of her actions as he explains his reasoning, making his comrades believe that he wills her to stay so that she, a Fire Nation native, cannot cause trouble. But somehow, she already understands him well enough to see that he is not ready to see her go. For this reason, and because she has yet to tire of his company, she agrees to stay a while longer.

Their days slip into a patterned system, beginning with her waking up before the warriors to make them breakfast and discovering that the man is already at the kitchen table with two cups of tea at the ready. They sit together and watch the sun rise through the back window, sipping from their steaming mugs and indulging in idle chatter until she eventually insists that, rising with a small smile, she ought to begin her day. By the time the other men appear in the kitchen, rubbing their eyes and sniffing the air, she has prepared breakfast and set the table. They thank her in the oddly spiritual manner in which they conduct their society, marveling that they themselves never learned how to cook so well with so few ingredients.

And she reflects with a smile that she has come to know quite well, as she pours the man a second cup of tea and sinks down across from him at the table, that nor did she. Not before she fled from home, all those years ago.

She watches him interact with his other warriors, tries to take in his mannerisms and the exact rhythm of his low voice as he speaks. He remains the same man, whether he's telling a lighthearted story of his youth's mischief or strategizing the best means of patrolling the city. His arms may flail in excitement, his hands fold gravely upon one another as he laments the war and where it has brought them, so far from home. Over time she picks apart his past like a complicated map and can merely laugh to herself when she realizes that he must be doing the same to her.

Then, on a morning weeks after their first meeting, he asks her for her story—her true story, he clarifies as she sits hesitantly down at her usual spot across from him. After a few moments of pointed silence, during which she picks distractedly at a sliver in the wooden tabletop, she replies that she will not tell him.

"Why not?"

She looks up at him and meets his eyes, and feels a desperate clinging sensation that renders her momentarily speechless. "Because I have enjoyed our amity, as atypical as it has been. I am not what you think I am."

At this, he gives a rumbling laugh. "You're already Fire Nation. What else could you possibly be to make us any less likely to get along?"

"I am everything you hate about the Fire Nation."

"Quite the contrary. I've come to think quite highly of you."

"Only because I have blurred the details so marvelously. If you knew—"

She breaks off here, letting her sentence die out into the morning's calm quiet. In the far sitting room, the youngest warrior pierces her grim train of thought with a muffled snore. She only jumps, though, when she feels his hand slip over hers. Lifting her chin to meet his hardened expression, she takes a breath, braces herself against his inevitable shout that will come as he leaps away from her in horror, and says in a breathy whisper, "I am the Fire Lady."

His expression does not change as he slides his hand so that it grips hers rather than merely sits above it, nor does he reel backwards in the dramatic motion that she had anticipated. Rather, he allows a momentary pause to grow between them before he calmly slides their mugs of tea aside, rises from his seat, and leans across the table to better cradle her head in his hand as he kisses her.

Her first thought is of her marriage, and that it has finally reached its end. Her second though is a fleeting sense of guilt, but that too dies away as she scrambles to her feet to answer his gesture with equal fervor.

Her third thought is confusion, not from the sensation of Hakoda's fingers in her hair or the surprised shout of one of the warriors as he strides into the room and sees his tribe chief with the Fire Nation runaway, but confusion stemmed from the last hundred years of fighting.

Ursa cannot understand the war, if only because kissing the enemy feels like the single most honest thing that she has ever done.





January 11, 2010